Keith and Kristyn Getty: 'More people in China than in the West sing our hymns on Sunday'
Ahead of the first of three Belfast gigs tonight, Northern Ireland-born singer/songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty say their greatest thrill is hearing their music in countries where Christians are persecuted.
Think of the most successful Northern Irish musical artists in history and the usual names spring to mind: songwriter extraordinaire Phil Coulter, punk era cheeky chappies The Undertones, heartstring-tugging indie heavyweights Snow Patrol, and, of course, the mighty, multi-talented maestro Van Morrison.
They have all written the tunes, scaled the charts, sold the units, entered the musical halls of fame with classic albums that will last for centuries, and performed in some of the world's most iconic stadia.
Rightly, they are considered our little country's finest. But they have competition, and from a husband and wife team that few will have heard of, never mind added to their playlists. Keith and Kristyn Getty may not be household names, but their writing credits and live performance stats put most musicians to shame.
When you are credited as having 'reinvented' a traditional musical form - in their case the hymn - and can confidently confirm that millions of people around the world sing your songs every day, you should perhaps expect more widespread recognition. But in the world of Christian music, they don't come much bigger, and that's more than enough for the tuneful twosome from Co Antrim.
"For centuries the music and the faith of the people of this island has gone out to every corner of the world," says Keith, a fresh-faced 41-year-old originally from Lisburn. "In this new millennia, with Christianity growing on a world level like never before, if our hymns can be a way that people give voice and depth to their faith, we could not be more excited."
And that they do, in their droves. Having written hundreds of hymns together since marrying in 2004, Keith and Kristyn can count themselves among the most listened to artists in the world. Co-written with long-time writing partner Stuart Townend, Keith's hymn 'In Christ Alone' is widely recognised as one of the most popular hymns ever written, with an estimated 50 million worshippers singing it in church services in the UK each year alone.
Those who know and love the Getty's music will no doubt have long since bought their tickets for their forthcoming Facing A Task Unfinished conference and concert in Belfast's Waterfront Hall - the first of three shows is tonight until Saturday. But for those unaccustomed to their music, a little explanation is perhaps necessary: what, exactly, is a 'modern hymn'?
"Well, there's no scientific definition," quips Keith. "I think the emphasis on strongly theological poetry, and on more classic or traditional melodies, has made most people class our songs as hymns rather than 'praise songs', and why they have become accepted by the 'hymn book' world.
"But I don't think we've done anything particularly new, other than work on an art form that in many places has sadly been forgotten or not built upon by a new generation. The fact that our hymns are sung throughout the world, especially Asia, and that they have found a place both in traditional and contemporary churches in the West means that they occupy a unique space in what is being written today."
In order to reinvent something, one must truly understand it. Unsurprisingly, Keith and Kristyn have been embedded in the Christian musical world since birth. The former was raised in Lisburn and the latter in Glengormley, and both were introduced to the music of worship "from as young as we can remember".
"We both had the privilege of being raised in families involved in growing churches, engaged in their culture and community," says Kristyn (36). "Keith's had a strong emphasis on hymns, whereas mine had a higher emphasis on contemporary expression. That's resulted in an interesting creative tension in our own music.
"My father was a founding leader of Glenabbey Church, and initially I sang in a more popular, free style. I didn't read music. My interest in songwriting began through my love for English literature and joy in interpreting lyrics with my voice.
"Keith's love of Christian music began in the home, where they played classical and church music on the piano. He also sang hymns in the church choir on Sunday mornings and played in a band on Sunday evenings, but became more excited about incorporating the folk music of Ireland into his work in his later teens, which was seen as slightly unusual, given the context.
"Keith's dad was an organist and his mum was a piano teacher, and he got the music bug playing the guitar, then piano, then flute, and eventually got into conducting and producing. These factors are still the core influences on how we write. Keith produces the melodies and I produce the lyrics."
The Gettys met in the mid-2000s, when Kristyn's esteemed uncle, Oxford maths professor John Lennox, introduced them over tea. "We were best friends immediately," Keith recalls, "though it took Kristyn three years to realise that I was more than just an overweight, arrogant Ulster Presbyterian… After that we got engaged in New York, married four months later and haven't spent a night apart in the past 12 years."
In that time, they have had three girls, whose names read like a cast of characters from one of Kristyn's favourite classical texts: Eliza Joy (5), Charlotte (3) and Gracie (1). "Two fiery red heads and a dark-haired daughter," Kristyn adds, "who, as it turns out, is fairly fiery as well. We travel almost everywhere together as a family."
That includes venues like Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Albert Hall in London and some of the biggest, most imposing churches in Europe. The Getty's tour regularly, mainly with their popular Irish Christmas Show, and have had their work performed by big name artists including Alison Krauss and Lyle Lovett. Their songs have also featured during events as monumental as the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less.
"We've experienced some truly amazing highlights during our career, but I think the greatest highlights are being present in churches where the songs have played a major part in people's lives. Ultimately, that's what they were written for," says Keith.
"Seeing videos of churches in countries where Christians are persecuted singing our hymns is incredible. It has been estimated that more people may sing our music in China on a Sunday than in the West, which is remarkable.
"In terms of artist highlights, Kristyn's duets with jazz musician John Patitucci and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo version of 'O Children Come' are my favourites, but then I've loved that group since I first heard them on Paul Simon's Graceland album."
When not touring, the Getty's spend half the year in Portstewart and the other half in that well-known musical Mecca, Nashville, home to artists as diverse as Ed Sheeran and Willie Nelson. Despite building a huge American fan base and performing for millions of Americans on public television, however, Keith, Kristyn and their family of burgeoning songwriters will always call Northern Ireland home.
"We love Nashville," says Kristyn. "We live in the south side of the city, close to Music Row, so it's very stimulating and challenging and lots and lots of fun.
"But it's not home, Northern Ireland is. This is where we grew up, found faith, found friendship and where we are still most inspired to write music."
That is not to say that music lovers who would not categorise themselves as Christians need not appreciate the Getty's work.
Far from it - Keith invites people of all faiths and none to attend their Waterfront Hall concert and help to make the experience one that audience and performers alike will remember fondly for years to come.
"In my late teens I interacted and debated with many brilliant people who had either no faith or different religious convictions, and at that stage I realised that if our generation was to survive, never mind thrive as Christians, then we had to be deep believers. What we sing plays a crucial part in that. God is more interested in who we are as people than in what we do.
"We cannot wait to perform from our new album, Facing A Task Unfinished, in Belfast. The album was inspired by a hymn written in 1931 in China, which led to many missionaries travelling there, some from our country, including descendants of the Guinness family. We hope that people will appreciate the story, the music, the dance element, everything. There are hymns and songs for everyone."
Finally, Keith and Kristyn have some sound advice for those emerging artists keen on writing their own modern hymns. "If you want to write for the church, it is an act of service," offers Keith, "so focus on trying to write music that serves your personal and local context and see how it goes."
Meanwhile, Kristyn adds: "Stop trying to sound American. We have the most incredible heritage and sense of melody here in Northern Ireland, and Christian passion (albeit sadly misplaced, sometimes).
"Be inspired by it, and always try to grow.
"As a musician you should be most passionate about your most recent work, and strive to become wiser, more loving, compassionate and passionate about the gift of life we have."
Keith and Kristyn Getty will perform at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm, and 9pm on Saturday. For more details and tickets visit waterfront.co.uk/what-s-on/all-events/keith-and-kristyn-getty-concert/